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Wednesday Wisdom with Michelle & KC : Week 2 : Indian Tea Cultivation from beginnings to the modern day : A closer look at Darjeeling : A look at climate change impact & mitigation

Welcome tea lovers to our next episode of Wednesday Wisdom.  
What's it all about?  You can read more on the background to this blog in our first post but in short every week I come together for an hour of discussion with KC from Ambootia and then distill the points that interest me into a blog for you to read & enjoy.  I always start this blog by saying that in the tea world and indeed the wider world we are all students.  My aim in sharing these interests is not to be 'right' indeed in many cases I expect to return to these topics and add more details - it is merely to ignite thought, conversation and interest in these fascinating topics that sit behind the cup of tea we all enjoy.  Feel feel free to add, comment and get involved!  I hope you enjoy the journey! 

Today our topics are :

  • Indian Tea Cultivation from beginnings to the modern day
  • Deep dive into Darjeeling
  • A look at climate change

Let's start by taking a look at Indian Tea Cultivation : 
1. From beginnings to the modern day 

In talking to me about the history of tea planting in India KC touched on the Ahom-Kings.  This was not a period that I was too familiar with so I set about to learn some more.  The Ahom kingdom (1228–1826) was a late medieval kingdom in the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam They ruled much of Assam from the 13th century until the establishment of British rule in 1838.  There is a lot of interesting articles online and in text so I will leave you explore these in more detail but by way of a concise introduction here are some extracts from the my readings with references for you to read more should you be interested :

Extract from Telegraph of India ‘DNA samples throw light on Thai-Ahom link’

‘Ahoms ruled Assam from 1228 to 1838. Historically, they are believed to be from beyond the Patkai mountains , with their forefathers forming group of states in and around Yunnan province and Upper Burma.  "For the first time a scientific link has been made with Thailand. This may show a new historical linkage," said Milan Kumar Chauley, an ASI archaeologist in the team.  Historian Edward Gait said the progenitors of the Ahoms were an offshoot of the great Tai or Shan Race. Sukapha (1228 to 1268), the first Ahom king to rule Assam is said to have left Maulang (Yunnan province in China) in 1215 and wandered in hilly Patkai range for 13 years.  During this time, he frequently raided Naga villages. In 1228 he arrived in Khamjang (Kachin in Myanmar). Gait says Sukapha crossed the Nongnyang lake at Sagaing where he met with fierce resistance from the Nagas. Later he came to Assam’

Looking to the links between the history of the Ahom people and the history of tea I share this extract from The Birth of a Noble Tea Country by Andrew B Liu [Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 23 No. 1 March 2010] who details the links between the Ahom, Robert Bruce and the Singpho

’When the British were awarded the Bengal diwani, or the right to collect revenue, from the Mughal Empire in 1765, Assam was ruled by the five-hundred-year old Ahom kingdom, which had reconsolidated its position by fighting off Mughal forces only earlier in the century. Thus, “Assam lay outside Mughal and thus early British India.” As governor-general Lord Charles Cornwallis wrote in 1792, “we know little more of the interior parts of Nepal and Assam than those of the interior parts of China.”  The wars of Burmese invasion (1817–24) brought the Company closer. The British arrived with the stated goal of only securing their own holdings by fending off the Burmese, who conceded defeat in 1826. But during the battles, an officer named Robert Bruce supplied arms and troops to help the Ahom king Chandra Kanta.  Bruce, who decided to permanently reside in Assam, later reported to his younger brother Charles (C.A.) that he had spotted an indigenous tea plant growing nearby.  In one account, the older Bruce formed an acquaintance with a local Singpho leader who agreed to furnish him with wild tea plants. Years later, after the British had successfully defeated the Burmese and won the Singphos’ favor, C.A. Bruce procured leaves from the same leader’

And so it was that the British East India Company took over the region from the Ahom kings through the Yandaboo Treaty in 1826 and in 1837, the first English tea garden was established at Chabua in Upper Assam; in 1840, the Assam Tea Company began the commercial production of tea in the region. While experimenting with tea in India during this expansion that the British colonists noticed that tea plants with thicker leaves grew in Assam - they in-fact wondered if they were a different but related species than the plants from China.  When they planted these ‘Assam’ plants they responded incredibly well.   
Let us pause to return to the indigenous communities of Assam - as mentioned above the Singpho leaders had a crucial role in bringing the local Assam plant to the notice of the outside world - these 'Assamese tea plants' were growing naturally in the jungles of Upper Assam and both the indigenous Singphoes and Khamties [who had come from Northern Myanmar to settle in Assam] knew and drank ‘brews' made from the tea leaves.  The Singpho tribe of Assam had also long cultivated these ‘Assam’ tea plants which now-a-days we classify as the same species to the Chinese plants : Camellia Sinensis.  
We won't go into the detail of the experimentation that took place with both the ‘Assam’ & ‘China’ varieties of the tea plant in the early days of 'tea cultivation' in India.  Suffice to say when the British started planting they were not sure where tea would grow or not grow.  They started growing from the foothills of the Himalaya and out to Nepal.  Some of those working to look at the feasibility of tea cultivation in India made a strong case for cultivation of the 'Assam' type as these 'native' tea plants were already growing wild in the forest.  Others favoured the ‘China’ variety which they felt had a better track record in terms of 'cultivation'  
Lets pause for a moment and reflect on the Chinese plants that are now grown in India - where and when do these start to come into the picture?  In short - there is so much you can read about this online and in many great tea books - the introduction of the Chinese variety of tea plant is attributed to Robert Fortune who ‘stole’ seeds and seedlings while working in China on behalf of the Royal Horticultural society.  He introduced 10s of thousands of seedlings to Darjeeling most of which failed to thrive.  However, aided by the skill, knowledge and technology from the Chinese - some of whom were brought to Darjeeling to oversee the introduction of Chinese tea plants they did later start to thrive and are an important component of the tea we enjoy today.  In Assam favourable feedback from the first experimental samples of tea from indigenous plants was received from Calcutta in 1836. This moment established the worth of the Assam tea and had a huge influence on modern tea cultivation : tea from the Assam type of plants is far more prevalent today than that from the China type.
And so, the rest they say, is history - with increasing experience under their belt the British consumed vast swathes of land through the rapid expansion of commercial production - making Assam the leading tea producing region in the world & Darjeeling the highly revered tea we know and love today.  But - from this short journey you can see just how complex the history of Indian tea is - politically and most certainly morally….the cup of tea we enjoy as part of our relaxation has arrived on our desks and tables with a legacy that continues to impact the people that live and work in these regions today and one the British would do well to reflect upon. To explore this in depth is beyond the scope of this Wednesday musing but hopefully there is enough introductory information here to whet your appetite for further reading.  

Back to our conversations with KC
2. A closer look at Darjeeling 

With that history explored lets travel to modern day Darjeeling and look in more depth at the growing conditions there.  Like all the great teas of the world it is the unique natural growing conditions in Darjeeling that are the backbone of its character.  The altitude ranges from 600 to 2000 meters above mean sea level and has historically provided more than adequate rainfall which, combined with the cool and humid climate, the soil and the sloping terrains give Darjeeling its unique "Muscatel flavour”
Darjeeling today is home to 87 'Darjeeling' estates across the hilltops and 'plain' areas.  In the hills position and elevation has a big role as we will explore below.  There are not many gardens in the plains - you start to see more gardens as you climb - right at the top is Happy Valley which is predominantly the AV2 cultivar - cultivar is a topic we will come back to in blogs to follow KC explains 'What you might notice as you travel from low to high is that some plants in the plains are big and broad - while the same plant produces much smaller leaves when it is higher up.  The metabolism in tea plants is very slow in the upper valley.    You can also see this in humans - people live longer in the high hills - they develop a slower metabolism and breathe more slowly - they have more concentrated body oxygen.  Back to the plant the leaves are smaller, the juices are more concentrated and the tea is more flavourful.  Of course this alone does not guarantee that the tea is good - the making of the tea is just as important!'|
Tea yield in Darjeeling is at the mercy of multiple environmental factors.  With KC I discussed a few of these and I will return to this topic in more detail in a later blog 

 : Tea needs sunlight.  North facing slopes give maximum sunlight.  When the sun is at full flow in the middle of the day a slant on the slope is much better so that there is not so much direct sunlight.  'The best gardens are N > E > S > W in that order' explains KC - 'the best gardens are North facing - however there are so many other factors to consider.  Of course there is no ‘uniformity’ across a whole garden even if it is on the same slope.  Tea needs a good 8 hours of sunshine a day - areas with more sun will flush first which means that shaded areas will flush later'
 : I had read online about the impact of insects on different parts of the slopes and of course we all know that pest and disease incidence is related to the weather patterns.  However as usual KC invites us to view insects through a different lens - ‘insects are everywhere, I would like you to consider that there are, in fact, no beneficial or destructive insects.  Let us consider the ladybird as a case where even a beneficial insect can become destructive - if ladybird populations become too large they become destructive through cannibalism - they turn on each other and eat each other.  Insects should exist in harmony with nature - if we see changes in insects which are detrimental to a crop then we must consider the other elements at play and how our actions are impacting the wider ecosystems - we must then act to rectify these rather than taking action to destroy the insects - this approach is too short term.'
 : The total annual rainfall and its distribution are of huge influence.  Where there is inadequate water tea will not flush [It has been estimated that one hectare standing of mature tea plants requires 10 tonnes of water per day, which is equivalent to 2.5 mm rainfall [ref EFFECT OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON PRODUCTION OF DARJEELING TEA: A CASE STUDY IN DARJEELING TEA RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT CENTRE, TEA BOARD, KURSEONG]]
Considering the factors at play in Darjeeling you can start to understand the ‘tea seasons’ here.  Darjeeling flushes for 8 months of the year with the tea season starting at the end of March when the temperature has historically sat more or less within the range of 21C to 14C [(Ghosh Hajra and Kumar, 1999).]  Harvesting will continue to September/October when the lower temperatures will kick in and yields will drop.  Let's compare this to some other regions of the world with different climatic conditions and therefore different lengths of tea seasons.  

1 South India flushes for 12 months

2 Rwanda flushes for 12 months

3 Assam Flushes for 10 months

4 Darjeeling Flushes for 8 months

3. A first look at climate change : impact & mitigation

Now we have touched on the climatic impact on the tea plant our conversation naturally leads us to the topic of climate change - so it makes sense to pause and examine this in more detail. Of course this is not unique to Darjeeling - it is a common thread of conversation with tea partners all over the world.  On our last trip to Darjeeling and in subsequent conversations we have learned how rising temperatures and changes in amounts and patterns of rainfall are having a huge impact on the tea in this region.  According to a long-term study by Darjeeling Tea Research and Development Centre (DTR&DC) in Kurseong, Darjeeling district, West Bengal, a temperature rise of 0.51 degree Celsius from 1993 to 2012 and decline in annual rainfall by 152.50 cm and relative humidity by 16.07% in those two decades of study led to overall production declines in tea.
As an example of how climate can impact the tea calendar higher temperatures earlier in the year can bring the first flush forward.  This change in temperature is also linked to a longer dry period which of course puts more stress on the plant - something that can change its character and quality.  Continuing on the theme of  quality later rains are also more erratic - heavier than usual rains during the first flush have a huge impact - you have to imagine that leaves would normally expect sunshine and showers in this period and go into shock - the chemical changes in the leaf that occur as a result will affect the appearance and the quality of the leaf - tea makers must be vigilant and know how to react to these changes when processing. For the land itself you can imagine the impact that heavy downpours will have on the slopes themselves : the topsoil is washed away exposing rocks and increasing the likelihood of landslides
As in other parts of the world Darjeeling has scientists looking into mitigation.  The Darjeeling Tea Research and Development Centre (DTR&DC) are suggesting measures such as :
>> Growing shade trees > these protect the tea bushes from the direct rays of the sun but also the leaves falling from the trees make the soil more nutritious & preserve moisture in the soil. 

>> Encouraging integrated farming involving less chemical use and the switch to organic.  There are many benefits to organic farming : one related to temperature rises is the use of vermi-compost which helps to maintain the temperature of the plant even in excessively humid conditions

>> Sowing of drought resistant plants like B157, P312, T78, AV2 & rainwater harvesting to feed irrigation channels during dry periods

>> Proactive planning from data collection :  installation of instruments that measure rainfall &  temp
As outlined in an article on specific gardens have adopted methods to mitigate :
Afforestation & use of natural sources of water. Planting of grasses like Guatemala and citronella that prevent soil erosion & whose mulches suppress weed growth
 : Planting of Vetiver grass which is helpful to check soil erosion on the slopes.

Let's end by looking at the work ongoing in the Ambootia group - the place from which KC so generously shares his knowledge each week : as outlined in the 2018 Ambootia DOTEPL Sustainable Development Report 2018 'Biodynamic practices are geared towards combating many natural risks. We are undertaking various mitigation and adaptation strategies, particularly for natural risks. These include planting cover crops & shade trees, building drainage systems to prevent waterlogging, using biodynamic organic compost & manure and planting seed plants. 

  • Soil Health : supported by their work with microbe-enhancing biodynamic methods and application of compost. Much of the compost at Ambootia is produced from the biomass from the tea gardens. As a biodynamic garden Ambootia also makes use of :-

      >> The nine biodynamic preparations described by Dr. Rudolf Steiner for
           the purpose of enhancing soil quality and stimulating plant life.
       >> Biodynamic Compost :  A way to recycle animal manures and organic
            wastes, stabilize nitrogen and build soil humus and enhance soil
  • Intercropping with leguminous plants to minimise soil erosion and increase the fertility of the soil. 
  • Preservation of biodiversity of the areas in and around the Tea Estates
  • Nurturing new tea plants nurtured from their own seed production facility [organic and 100 % GMO*-free trees].  Selecting only the most robust and productive tea plants to reproduce with a focus on those less susceptible to pests 

Thank you so much for tuning in & to KC for his continued commitment to conversation & knowledge sharing.  Until next time.....

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